EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Duquesne quarterback Darrius Perrantes was 9 years old at the time. His go-to receiver, Joey Isabella, was 8. Some freshmen on this year’s Dukes team were 5.
When Duquesne and Sacred Heart tied for third in the preseason poll at the Northeast Conference’s football media day on Wednesday at Met Life Stadium, it marked the lowest projection for the Dukes since 2010.
Oh yes, the NEC champion first began to receive an automatic bid to the FCS playoffs with that same 2010 season, and the program that has represented the conference the most times – Sacred Heart with four appearances – was projected third alongside Duquesne.
Call it the year of living dangerously with the NEC poll.
It’s also an indication the 28th season in conference history is rich with title contenders. Defending champion Saint Francis warranted the favorite’s role over second-pick Merrimack – those two teams squared off for the NEC title on the final Saturday of last year’s regular season – and LIU, which finished third last season, may have come in light with a fifth-place projection among the eight teams.
“It’s a battle every week. These teams are very even,” Saint Francis coach Chris Villarrial said. “The team that can stay healthy and get on a roll is the team that’s going to win the conference. That’s how it’s typically been in this conference.”
While the complexion of NEC schools has changed in the last decade, as it has for much of Division I football, Merrimack, LIU and Stonehill – the newest members – have been in the conference long enough to grow the conference’s history of a gritty, physical style even as spread offensive schemes and hybrid defensive alignments sprinkle in with the old guard of programs.
CCSU’s new 43-year-old coach Adam Lechtenberg, an assistant with the Blue Devils’ 2010 co-champions and in 2011, said NEC players still remain, “Hard-nosed tough. They don’t have high expectations for glitz and glamour, they have expectations for work ethic.”
“I’m from back in the old days when it was Albany and it was three yards and a cloud of dust,” Duquesne’s Jerry Schmitt, the dean of NEC head coaches, said with a laugh.
“I think it compares to what the rest of the country’s doing – spreading the ball a little bit and getting it in athletes’ hands. But it’s the like the NFL, if you can run the ball, you can keep the ball away from the other team.”
Saint Francis and Merrimack were both 6-0 in the NEC last Nov. 19 when Red Flash quarterback Cole Doyle passed for five touchdowns in a 52-23 rout of the Warriors to claim the title and power into the playoffs. Doyle’s return as the conference’s offensive player of the year puts added importance on having consistency behind center, and there are other key returning signal callers such as Perrantes (back from a knee injury), LIU’s Luca Stanzani and Stonehill’s Ashur Carraha.
Like Doyle, Sacred Heart running back Malik Grant is a past NEC offensive player of the year, having done so in 2021 in the first of his back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.
LIU, despite being picked fifth, gained the most selections on the NEC preseason team with six of the 27 overall – two more than Saint Francis, Merrimack, Sacred Heart and CCSU with four each.
While Discovery Channel’s annual “Shark Week” is airing next week, the theme will last much longer with LIU during the NEC season. The Sharks won their final four games after Stanzani stepped into the starting lineup as a freshman, and by then, his team’s defense already had the NEC’s top rookie, defensive end Eric O’Neill, in a lead role.
Yes, it’s a deep, deep title race.
“Our work is going to get harder this year,” Villarrial said. “Obviously, we won the conference – now you have the bull’s-eye on our back.
“We’re going to focus on ourselves – no one else – and just try to get better.”
Northeast Conference Preseason Poll
1. Saint Francis (2022: 9-3, 7-0), 5 first-place votes
2. Merrimack (8-3, 6-1), 2
T3. Duquesne (4-7, 3-4), 1
T3. Sacred Heart (5-6, 3-4)
5. LIU (4-7, 4-3), 1
T6. Central Connecticut State (2-9, 2-5)
T6. Stonehill (4-5, 2-5)
8. Wagner (1-10, 1-6)